A Coal Plant Shutdown and the Undoing of a Wind Energy Bottleneck

Everyone knows the transmission bottleneck is the boot on the neck of wind energy.  The Plains States have megawatts of wind energy.  Getting it to the places with megawatts of demand, like Oregon and Washington, aye, there’s the rub.  If only an operating plant would expire and shuffle off its transmission lines to a wind farm.

Something like that may just happen.  Earlier this week Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy settled a Clean Air Act suit brought by the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center.  Plaintiffs alleged violations of the Clean Air Act by four coal-fired generating units at the Colstrip Power Plant in Colstrip, Montana.  As part of the settlement the two 1970s-vintage units will be closed by 2022; the other two 1980s-vintage units will continue to operate.

Presumably the litigants are satisfied with their settlement.  As reported in RTO Insider, Governor Steve Bullock of Montana, not so much: ““I stand with the workers and the community of Colstrip in being angry about this settlement outcome. The parties of this lawsuit took care of themselves. I am going to work to take care of the employees and their families.” So how does one do that? 

As the plant fact sheet  points out, 360 people work at the plant and millions of dollars are contributed as property taxes to Rosebud County, Montana.  While the two more modern remaining generating units (1480 MW) will continue to employ some and make their contributions to the taxman, the county and some of its citizens are going to take a hit – unless something can come in and take the place of the two units.  One excellent possibility is a wind farm.  Montana is recognized by the American Wind Energy Association as a national leader in wind energy potential.    

As it turns out, a wind farm is not only a possibility, it is becoming a reality, albeit an hour away from Colstrip.  Clearwater Energy is developing the largest wind farm in Montana in nearby Forsyth.  It is estimated that the 300 MW project will generate 100 jobs in construction, and 10 full time operations jobs - not nearly the employment of the two retired units, but a start.

One of the reasons for the decision to develop the wind farm was the proximity of the transmission infrastructure at Colstrip.  And this was before the Colstrip closures were announced.  With that announcement, the odds are good that the 614 MW capacity opening up on the transmission lines, which will be only partly filled by the Clearwater project, will attract more wind development.  Needless to say, all wind projects will contribute to the tax base. 

We opened with a comment about the transmission bottleneck plaguing wind energy operators and then plagiarizing Shakespeare regarding its resolution. We continue in that vein. In Montana at least, to be or not to be a transmission line is never the question.  Instead, the transmission line is, and, as shown by the Colstrip Power Plant, the question is how best to use it.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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